20 Handpicked Tom Petty Stories
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers live in 2014 - Tom Petty / Youtube
Even if it’s been three years, it’s still hard to imagine that the legendary Tom Petty has gone onto the next world. The classic rocker has tugged on heartstrings, invigorated passion, and evoked fun out of seemingly ordinary situations that he turned into classic songs. In memory of one of the most vital figures in classic rock history, here are some of the most entertaining Tom Petty stories one shouldn’t miss.
Inspiration Came In Unexpected Places
For someone as established in the rock industry as he was, Petty didn’t shy away from the possibility of being inspired by other artists, including his juniors. One example of this is his fascination with Prince, which was showcased in a co-writing session with Stevie Nicks. Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart was recommended to him by the Heartbreakers for additional writing support, but Petty ultimately took the helm as he laid down the guide vocal for the song, Nicks backing out so he could do so properly. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was a product of deviance, which he explained to Paul Zollo on the 2020 book, Conversations With Tom Petty: “I think when we brought it to the record company, they were very mystified by it – because it wasn’t like anything I had ever done. I think they were a little concerned that it was a little too far off the map. But I thought, at the time, Prince had come out with ‘When Doves Cry’ [and] I saw it as kind of going for the same kind of thing in a different way.”
Improvisation is Key
For the title track of his 1994 LP Wildflowers, Petty managed to pull off one of the most amazing feats of impromptu songwriting. He told Zollo, “I swear to God it’s all ad-lib from the word ‘go.’ I turned on my tape deck, picked up my acoustic guitar, took a breath, and played that from start to finish. And then sat back and went, ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ And I listened to it. I didn’t change a word. Everything was just right there, off the top of my head.”
Not One for Mediocrity
It is to be expected from an artist of his caliber that his standards are sky-high as well. Petty co-wrote the song “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” with Dave Stewart, which made its way to the Southern Accents album. But he hated it with a vengeance. “I hate that song, it’s just trash,” he said. “It was Dave just trying to get me to knock a song out. Just write a song for the sake of writing one. And I think that’s what it sounds like to me. It’s one of the few that I just don’t like. I like a lot of our work. I’m pretty proud of most of it. That one was the result of some misguided people. We didn’t really know what we were doing.”
Pain to Power
“Even The Losers” was inspired by an encounter with a girl he knew in middles school. After tripping on lsd, the two skipped rocks and smoked cigarettes, which are referenced in the song’s lyrics as well. On Warren Zane’s Petty: The Biography, Petty said: “She let me know it was just for that night. And it scarred my brain all over again. In a matter of hours, I’d let myself believe another story, the one I’d wanted to believe for a long time. I only saw her a few times after that. But finally she took me into a room at someone’s place and said, ‘You keep trying, but you and me isn’t going to happen.’ When I wrote ‘Even the Losers’ years later, that night came back. I obsessed over her so much. She’s probably in a lot of songs.”
Full Goof Fever
While Full Moon Fever was a legitimate gem of classic rock, it had comedic moments of its own as well. There is a hidden track in the middle of the album that serves as a transition announcement. Petty goes: “Hello, CD listeners. We’ve come to the point in this album where those listening on cassette or records will have to stand up or sit down and turn over the record or tape. In fairness to those listeners, we’ll now take a few seconds before we begin Side Two. Thank you. Here’s Side Two.”
Even the Nicest Guys Have Enemies
On “Jammin’ Me”, Petty does a lot of pop culture references, aided by contributor Bob Dylan. Eddie Murphy was pretty pissed at Petty for the line “Take back Vanessa Redgrave / Take back Joe Piscopo / Take back Eddie Murphy / Give ’em all some place to go.” Petty defended himself, saying, “I remember seeing Eddie Murphy on TV really pissed off about it. I had nothing against Eddie Murphy or Vanessa Redgrave.”
Honoring an Old Friend
Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers predicted in 2018 that Petty’s iconic backup act would reunite someday. “It would be a great tribute to Tom just to do [Wildflowers]. We’d probably have four or five different guest singers with us. We don’t know who they might be, though, or when this might happen,” he said in a Rolling Stone interview. The pandemic has stopped any touring ambitions, however, but the fans are willing to wait.
Stevie Nicks and her Whoopsie Moment
Nicks accidentally “stole” an initial demo that would become Petty’s “Runaway Trains” when she picked up the wrong cassette at his house, taking from Mike Campbell’s instrumental tracks instead, as she often worked on Campbell’s demos that were rejected by Petty. So she wrote lyrics to it and started recording the tune with Fleetwood Mac. To her surprise, Petty wasn’t too enthusiastic about it when she called to let him listen, and she immediately realized why. In an interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Nicks shared: “I’m realizing, ‘How stupid are you, Stevie?’ So I had to go in the next day and tell Fleetwood Mac, ‘Guess what, we can’t do this song.’ ‘Why can’t we do it?’ ‘Because I stole it from Tom Petty, and I’m absolutely a total criminal and a thief.'” The demo eventually became the aforementioned song, and Nicks’s own 1989 cut, “Ohh My Love”, this time with original words and melody.
A Salute From an Old Friend
Bob Dylan was a friend and Petty’s bandmate in The Traveling Wilburys, which only meant the two were very close to each other. Dylan saluted Petty in October 2017 on what would have been his 67th birthday. He performed his version of Petty’s 1991 classic, “Learning To Fly”.
Honoring An Inspiration
Petty was in the midst of working on the Heartbreakers album Hard Promises when news of John Lennon’s murder broke out. As a tribute to the late Beatle, Petty instructed the mastering plant to etch a special message onto the LP’s run-out groove – “We love you, J.L.”
The King’s Influence
Petty managed to meet Elvis when his uncle got a job on the set of the King’s movie, Follow That Dream. He recalled in a 2017 interview with Uncle Joe Benson that it was a “really religious experience.” He added: “We were in a little backstage area where they had the trailers, and he came in, and arrived in a line of white limos. And, you know, when he came by, stopped and said hello, my uncle introduced me and my cousins. It was very exciting. Changed my life, really, because after that I started collecting records and just went in that direction.”
An Artist Through and Through
While Petty was mostly concerned about the quality of his material, he also made some of the most classic music videos in history. Alice in Wonderland is very reminiscent in “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, while he went the animation route with “Runnin’ Down A Dream”.
I Started A Joke
“Free Fallin'”, the Full Moon Fever classic, actually started out as a joke. Petty came about the main riff of the song when he was messing with the keyboards during the album’s recording sessions, and started singing the first verse as a joke – he thought it was for Jeff Lynne, who produced the album, at least. “Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff, but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word[s] ‘free falling,’” he shared. “And I went to sing that and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.’ So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast.”
A Generous Rockstar
Petty didn’t interfere with the amazing performance unfolding on 2004’s Rock Hall of Fame induction, where he performed with Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and Prince. Prince tore through their rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with an amazing solo, where Petty just felt the moment come to him. “You see me nodding at him, to say, ‘Go on, go on.’ I remember I leaned out at him at one point and gave him a ‘This is going great!’ kind of look. He just burned it up. You could feel the electricity of something really big [was] going down here,” he told The New York Times.
A True Radio Personality
Petty didn’t just dominate the radio with his hits – he was also dedicated to bringing one up from the ground. He was pretty hands-on with SiriusXM’s Tom Petty radio, supplying exclusive tracks, rare cuts, and other VIP material. He even volunteered to be the channel’s first DJ, which he did brilliantly thanks to his time on Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure.
Just His Luck
Petty’s label MCA initially didn’t agree on Full Moon Fever’s release. According to Warren Zanes of Petty: The Biography: “Petty had made what he felt was a great record, only to have the doubters at his record label be among the first to hear it and pass judgment on it. The rejection knocked him down. It hadn’t ever happened that way. That anyone at MCA felt they were in a position to respond as they did left Petty stunned.” And while MCA did release the album, tensions were sky-high between the two parties that led to Petty signing with Warner Bros. instead.
He Didn’t Mince Words
Petty was pretty vocal about the things he enjoyed and loved: radio shows, collaborations, and the likes. He was very much the same about the things he hated as well, which included DJ-based music, MP3s, reality television, and bonus tracks on greatest hits releases.
Fighting Tooth and Nail for What’s Rightfully His
Petty’s family issued a cease and desist order notice against Donald Trump after he used “I Won’t Back Down” at a campaign rally. His family wrote a joint statement saying: “Trump was in no way authorized to use this song to further a campaign that leaves too many Americans and common sense behind. Both the late Tom Petty and his family firmly stand against racism and discrimination of any kind. Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate. He liked to bring people together.”
Saying Goodbye In a Fitting Manner
Just a week before he passed away, Petty played his final show on September 25 at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. to close his 40th-anniversary tour. He’d already said before that it could be his last tour, making these shows a fitting way to close his successful run. Petty and the Heartbreakers brought out classics like “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Free Fallin'” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, showering the final three sold-out shows of the event.
A Good Person to the End
Petty did his final tour partly to help out his crew and make his fans happy – even if it meant being the last time ever. His widow Dana told Billboard, “He would do anything to help anyone — his bandmates, the crew, the fans – and that’s why he did the last tour with a fractured hip. He was adamant. He found out a few days before the tour was gonna start … that he had emphysema.” Calling Petty “stubborn,” she added, “He’d had it in mind it was his last tour and he owed it to his longtime crew – from decades, some of them – and his fans.”